Just call it The Little Jeep That Could.
Jeep needs to co-opt that children’s book, only instead of a steam engine with a can-do attitude, the hero would be the 2016 Jeep Renegade Trailhawk I just spent a week driving.
Jeep diehards, many of whom are convinced nothing more civilized than their chosen generation of Wrangler is a “real Jeep,” just stopped reading. That’s OK. With Jeep Renegades picking up steam in their sales numbers lately, the model should have plenty of time to win over the hardasses.
Those Jeep Freaks™ will be swayed easiest by the Renegade Trailhawk. The model takes an already stiff, willing chassis and SelecTerrain 4×4 system and adds more ground clearance, a lower final drive ratio, a bunch of skid plates, and other options that make it the most adept version of the Renegade for those who will actually venture off the beaten path.
Is it capable? You bet. I was mighty uncomfortable at first when I set out to take the 2016 Jeep Renegade Trailhawk off-road. In driving more than 100 cars from the press fleets of automakers, I’ve never taken one of those cars as deep off-road as I took the Renegade Trailhawk. But the Little Jeep That Could assuaged my fears in short order, handling the task as if it were bred for it.
Well, it was bred for it.
I was traversing some terrible, unkempt gravel trails. We’re not talking the kind of gravel that’s in most driveways across America’s heartland. We’re talking big, chunky rocks that don’t create anything resembling a flat surface. Add stream crossings, steep Tennessee hills, ditches formed by rain runoff, close-contact with several tree branches, and a bunch of sections where boulders protruded from the surface, and you have the recipe for a good time in a Jeep — unless that Jeep belongs to someone else, as my tester did. Then you fret about every little thing that might come in contact with your ride.
But I digress. I was under strict orders to take the Renegade off-road. I overcame several moments of “pucker factor,” including a couple of incidents where I only had three wheels on the ground, and found myself immensely enjoying the Renegade Trailhawk in its natural setting.
The Renegade Trailhawk can hold its own in the backcountry thanks to Jeep’s 4×4 know-how. I left SelecTerrain in its default “Auto” mode (there are “Sand”, “Rock”, “Mud”, and “Snow” modes as well) for the entire trail experience but did lock in 4×4 low range on a couple of steeper hill sections. Despite this simple approach, the Renegade took me places where I would not have taken a similarly new-and-not-mine Wrangler, whose increased girth would have kept me from some narrow sections along the trail.
My tester was let down by its tires, however. Goodyear Eagle RS-As are not the stuff you want when you’re crawling over crags. I abandoned an attempted steep ascent up a boulder-strewn path that saw the Goodyears lose traction and slide with gravity a few times — unsettling to say the least. Discretion, as they say, is the better part of valor. I backed down and found a wide place to turn around, having found the Goodyears’ limit of grip — and the limit of my own will to take risks in a press vehicle in a remote area where there was no cellphone reception.
On pavement, the Renegade Trailhawk felt as solid as it did on the trail — no mean feat for Jeep, at least to those of us who remember when “Renegade” was an appearance package. Steering feel is surprisingly good, as modern vehicles go, and the FCA “Tigershark” 2.4-liter engine and nine-speed automatic transmission are adept at getting the somewhat heavy (around 3,573 lbs dry) vehicle up to speed while returning decent fuel economy. I got a manually calculated 22 MPG after my trail-busting experience, where I stopped many times and left the engine idling while I shot photos. In on-road-only use, I was seeing a tripmeter-reported 26 MPG.
The interior space in the Renegade Trailhawk can be a little tight for rear seat passengers if those in the front buckets are tall — or it can be a little tight for the front-seat passenger if there’s a rear-facing baby seat behind them in the second row. That was the case for my wife, riding shotgun in front of our one-year-old in his Baby Trend Flex-Loc rear-facing seat. She remarked the Renegade felt tighter inside than our pair of Nissan cubes.
That’s not really the case. Jeep just prioritized its space differently than Nissan did. Where our cubes have a little more legroom for rear passengers, they suffer for front-seat legroom and aft cargo space. The Renegade takes a more balanced approach, offering the driver more legroom if needed and also offering more cargo space behind the rear seats.
I would be remiss in my duties if I didn’t praise the Renegade’s Uconnect infotainment system. Uconnect remains one of the easiest-to-use factory infotainment suites out there, and it was pleasant in the Renegade. I derived a kind of perverse joy from switching to the Navigation screen while off-roading just to see how far I could stray from known roads. Media streaming from my LG K8 smartphone running Android 6 was dead-simple, though the head unit lacked Android Auto that is starting to creep into some cars in the Renegade Trailhawk’s price range. It’s a matter of time before Android Auto makes its way to Uconnect systems in many new FCA products, anyway.
Overall, I found myself falling in love with the Jeep Renegade Trailhawk. It was far more rugged and capable on rough roads than my daily driver, the cube, while maintaining much the same footprint and interior space. My kids loved the My Sky removable roof panels, and my five-year-old son loved finding the smattering of “Easter eggs” in the Renegade’s exterior and interior design elements. I loved how it drove on some of the rougher roads near my home base, displaying none of the cowl-shake that those same roads sometimes elicit from my cube.
My wife, cramped in front of that rear-facing baby seat, wasn’t in love with the Renegade that she admittedly found “cute” from the day it debuted. I’m pretty sure that would change if she got to drive it and/or once our youngest transitions to a forward-facing baby seat. As for me, the experience with the Jeep Renegade Trailhawk was an enjoyable fling. It has left me wanting more. Namely, I want to test-drive a Renegade with the other, less-common powertrain: There’s a 1.4-liter turbocharged four-cylinder and six-speed manual available in lower-spec Renegades, and you can still get four-wheel drive. I know that engine from the Fiat 500 Abarth, where it’s a riot. I’m sure the Renegade is a bit slower than the tiny Fiat, but still a lot of fun on-road.
Sure, I’d lose the Trailhawk’s extra ground clearance and lower final-drive ratio, but that doesn’t bother me so much. Like most, I’d never actually seek trails to go off-road with the Renegade. But it would be nice to have the 4×4 capability for couple of snows we get in my part of the world every year or for the occasional rain-rutted gravel road.
For those who want to venture off-road or whose needs are simply more demanding than my own, the 2016 Jeep Renegade Trailhawk (starting at about $26,000) is a solid buy. Fully loaded with every option on the list, my tester clocked in at $32,000 — which is a bit higher than some of the compact crossover competition out there. But then, none of those is as capable off-road as the 2016 Jeep Renegade Trailhawk.